Excluding towns that have been absorbed into large, nearby cities, there are only 19 stand-alone metropoli in the United States with populations over 100,000 that Ruth and I haven’t visited. Last year we made it to Chattanooga, TN, Columbia, SC, and Charlotte, NC. On our 3rd adventure of 2018, we made it to Victorville, CA.
Victorville is north of San Bernardino in the Victor Valley just past Cajon Pass. Those driving north to it on I-15, which cuts diagonally through Victorville, have some fine views of the San Gabriel Mountains. In 1860 Victorville had a population of 10. Growth occurred shortly after that because a telegraph station named after railroad pioneer Jacob Victor located there. Victor’s big lifetime achievement was bringing this nation’s 2nd transcontinental railroad to the West Coast. The California Southern Railway was part of the Santa Fe system. In 1885 Victor drove the first train engine through Cajon Pass linking San Bernardino to Barstow, which is 34 miles north of Victorville. Victorville is on the edge of the Mojave Desert. By the year 2000 Victorville had a population of 64,000. Today it exceeds 122,000.
Some crazy people live in Victorville and commute to jobs in the Los Angeles area. I talked to a very nice woman who lives in Hesperia, which is just south of Victorville. She told me that her husband drives to his job near LAX every day. She starts waking him up for his long commute at 3 am. I have no good photos of Victorville because it’s 95% shopping centers and new neighborhoods strung along I-15, and the old part of town is the dilapidated home of about 3,000.
Surprisingly, 13 movies have been at least partially shot in Victorville. One in the Fast and Furious series was filmed there as was Grand Theft Auto. The script for Citizen Kane was written there. Cowboy star Roy Rogers and his wife Dale Evans were both born in Victorville, and there used to be a museum devoted to their careers here but it moved to Branson before closing permanently. There’s still a small tribute to them in the California Route 66 Museum on D Street in the old part of town, where Ruth & I learned that most of 66’s foreign visitors now come from Brazil. Why?
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Narcissa Thorne was born in Indiana. When she became Mrs. James Ward Thorne, she was financially set for life because he was a Montgomery Ward heir. Over the next several years she developed an interest in miniature rooms and began creating them. Several of them ended up in Chicago’s Art Institute, where Ruth and I saw them several times. I thought they were only there. That’s why I was surprised to find several of them on permanent display in the Phoenix Art Museum this week. I learned from the staff that they were personal gifts from Narcissa, and that this popular tourist attraction has the world’s 2nd largest collection of these unique rooms.
Narcissa Thorne had no formal training in architecture or interior design. A talented amateur, she was able to hire workers with skills to help her realize 100 one-of-a-kind rooms over a 10 year period. It took 30 to 40 people to construct each one in exacting detail. Each one was based on Narcissa Thorne’s extensive notes and files. Her rooms were exhibited at world fairs and in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Magazine articles praised them. The Phoenix Art Museum has 20. The Knoxville Museum of Art has 9. The Art Institute has 68 of them on continuous display.
Narcissa’s miniature rooms show incredible detail, range from the year 1600 to 1940, and are on a scale of 1 inch to 1 foot. Several are modeled on actual rooms, but many just reflect a period like the French Directoire Room below, which she copied from a French watercolor. The one up top shows an art deco hall from 1925. It’s my favorite. People who see these rooms are fascinated by her exacting detail and historical precision. One clock actually runs. A tea tray was made from a single copper penny. She collected miniature furniture and household items during travels to Europe, Asia, etc. She had period-style rugs woven. Chest drawers open with tiny keys.
Her Italian Dining Room is a masterpiece of invention. The silverware on the table came from Roman and Florentine antique shops, and the 2 chests under the tapestries were Narcissa’s only attempt at wood carving. She was driven to do these rooms and never received any financial compensation for them.
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At the beginning of 2018 Mandalay Bay, the hotel in Las Vegas where a very disturbed man killed 58 people on October 1, 2017, renumbered its floors. The 32nd floor was where the shooter rented a suite, so Mandalay Bay renamed floors 31 through 34 as 56 to 59. This is not as strange as it sounds. A local psychology professor, Michelle Paul, says it makes sense, and the hotel already had an unusual numbering system. The tragedy that made our friend Alex cry has not been forgotten, but the hotel and Las Vegas in general have moved on.
Ruth and I tend to look for and appreciate the many Las Vegas attractions that are not on The Strip during our annual trip to visit friends, but this time we visited 2 Strip mainstays, the Bellagio and the Convention Center, to see if a city that depends on pleasing visitors seemed normal. Both places were busy. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has opened a new and helpful info center that is much smaller than its old one, and a large convention with lots of human traffic was in progress. The Bellagio had begun a spring celebration in its very popular Conservatory, and it was full of awed people taking photos.
This is a free attraction and if you can limit your visit to an hour, which is possible, you can park free in The Bellagio’s gargantuan garage. The Bellagio’s Conservatory/Botanical Garden puts on 5 seasonally themed shows every year that celebrate the 4 seasons and Chinese New Year. This season’s theme is “Japanese Spring”. It will be there until June 3. Over the Memorial Day weekend a summer show will replace it. Typically Las Vegas extravagant, the spring show offers oversized pink lilies and gardens of real flowers, koi, a teahouse, birds, cherry tree blossoms, etc. The enormous vases were my favorite part.
The Bellagio clearly hires the best horticulturalists and designers to put on these shows that entertain hordes of people of all ages and cultures.
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James Turrell said, “My art is about your seeing.” There’s an example of this in Las Vegas’ deluxe mall, Crystals at City Center, where in the monorail station the lighting dramatically changes color.
A MacArthur Fellowship recipient, Turrell has been transforming Roden Crater, a volcanic cone near Flagstaff, AZ, into an art work for several years. Wikipedia says he is transitioning it “into a massive naked-eye observatory for experiencing celestial phenomenon.” Wow!
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Brownsville is often on lists of the poorest towns in this nation, and many people who knew I was going there asked, “Why are you going to the Rio Grande Valley?” Poor Brownsville is trying to improve its image. The SpaceX South Texas Launch Site and The Mitte Cultural District are part of its image-changing plans. The former was not planned. SpaceX announced its choice of a near-Brownsville location in 2014. The Mitte Cultural District was planned. In fact, this complex has been developing for almost 10 years and contains Brownsville’s biggest tourist attraction, the Gladys Porter Zoo. Ruth and I found a worthwhile, very unheralded attraction here, the Costumes of the Americas Museum that isn’t getting a lot of attention either locally or nationally.
As near as I can tell, Costumes of the Americas (CAM) opened when the Mitte Cultural Education Center did in 2005. Many locals don’t know anything about it, so we had the fun of introducing them to an attraction they were suddenly interested in. The growing CAM accumulation began with Bessie Kirkland Johnson’s collected Mexican costumes and handicrafts, and it already contains more than 500 original native costumes from the nations and cultures of the Americas. Ruth & I saw a 3-part show that included a Guatemalan market scene and many colorful Mexican designs that reminded us of Mexico City’s fantastic Museo Nacional de Antropologia.
Karen Ray, my contact person, indirectly told me that what was on view would be changing in March or April, and “Costumes, Passion, & Community” is now on display to celebrates the bicultural uniqueness of this border city. This show sounds ideal for Brownsville and will, I assume, be up until next March or April. The Costumes of the Americas Museum is with the Children’s Museum of Brownsville, and they share a unique gift shop.
Roy Mitte grew up in Brownsville. As a young man he joined the army, became a teacher and basketball coach, and married Joann Cole. After teaching for a while Roy entered the insurance industry and built one of the largest agencies in the United States, got into real estate, and made a fortune. The Mittes established a charitable foundation in 1994, and the cultural district benefitting bedraggled Brownsville resulted in the 21st century.
CAM deserves a look. Not only does this country have an increasingly important Hispanic population, this relatively new museum deals with an interesting subject that is part of its mission statement: CAM plans to exhibit “authentic indigenous dress and costumes, jewelry and accessories of the Americas, with emphasis on Mexico” our increasingly important neighbor.
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